A symbol of high hopes

2nd February 1996 at 00:00
A massive facelift has brought optimism to a school in a deprived area of Manchester. Maureen O'Connor looks at the effects

The elegant glass lift at Ducie High School is as much symbolic as useful. For those riding it there are panoramic views of Manchester, as well as the local neighbourhood which is in the throes of significant regeneration. For people on the outside the lift conveys the message that someone believes in the teenagers of Hulme and Moss Side and that only the best is good enough.

Ducie's headteacher, Dawn Peters, is clearly proud of the refurbished school, which opened in September. Some old Victorian buildings were gutted and made new, while a gym, a technology and art block have been added. A fountain already plays in the courtyard and come the summer there will be pergolas and trailing plants. Environments matter and buildings are important, says Dawn Peters.

A commitment from Manchester's Labour administration helped put together Pounds 6.2 million for Ducie's regeneration. Part came from the sale of one of its former "split-site" buildings, and Pounds 1.18 million came from European funds. Already, says Dawn Peters, the children are becoming proud and protective of their environment. "We don't talk about being an inner-city school... we talk about being at the heart of the city."

But this phoenix did not arise overnight. Peters arrived as an English specialist in 1982 and has experienced the school's chequered history. It was founded 120 years ago as a church board school. In the 1950s it was a technical school and a decade later became a co-educational comprehensive. In 1982, in a messy amalgamation, which saw 80 per cent of the staff depart, it became a boys-only school initially on four sites and eventually on two. It went into a spiral of decline with falling rolls, and closure beckoned. "There was no way out but up," says Dawn Peters.

She became head in 1988, as the last girls left. A firm believer in co-education, she welcomed girls back in 1993 - and so did the boys. The school's intake is almost equally from African-Caribbean, Asian and European ethnic groups. About 8 per cent are from Somali refugee families; 70 per cent of pupils qualify for free school meals; and about two-thirds do not have English as a first language. "These children have great talent and great resilience but the odds are against them in terms of hardship," says Peters who feels a personal responsibility to offer them the best.

Girls are being reintroduced, with three year groups now integrated. A recent HM Inspectorate visit produced positive comments: the inspectors' immediate reaction was to tell Peters how safe they felt at Ducie.

The Department for Education and Employment approved Pounds 500,000 a year for three years for developing Ducie as a centre of technological excellence. Some government inner-city Task Force money was allocated for books and computers, and European Union funds provided for an Open Learning resource centre for adults and children.

The emphasis on technology goes back to the days of the Technical and Vocational Educational Initiative when the school began to build expertise. "There tends to be so much emphasis on academic standards that other things are ignored," says Dawn Peters. "The implication is that technology, crafts, the arts, caring and so on don't matter. We look for excellence in all these things to help build children's confidence and self-esteem."

She believes passionately in the place of the arts in education. The first three years take a combined performing and expressive arts course and the new buildings incorporate extensive art and design studios where the old desks and tables remain as reminders of what still needs to be done.

The school's own additional "three Rs", Peters says, are reason, responsibility and respect. It is a slow process, demanding constant reinforcement and time. As she makes her way around the school she asks - by name - any pupil wandering the corridors why they are there and where they should be.

It has taken four years, she says, to get the pupils into uniform, which is considerably less expensive than the designer label clothes they would opt for if they could. Attendance is a high priority area where the school has gained the support and encouragement of parents. Success, she says, requires constant effort from all parties.

A highlight of the school year is the Celebration of Achievement evening held each December, when pupils from all years are rewarded for academic and sporting prowess and for service to school and community. About 70 per cent go on to tertiary college; a handful are studying for degrees and one started a PhD at Cambridge this term.

In l994, a Year 10 group won the British Telecom Cup for excellence in technology and a Ducie team won the Manchester Schools Chess Championship. There are residential weeks and weekends and overseas trips. In an area of poverty and social disintegration, the school has to provide the sorts of experience which middle class families take for granted, Peters says.

There are a wide range of team and individual sports on offer and lunch-time and after-school activities range from chess and pet clubs to debating and language groups. Parents sign a contract with the school and are advised on how to help their children with homework.

Work experience, careers advice, liaison with local colleges, nearby Manchester University and with the local Compact school-industry agreement, have brought in cash and personnel. Adult role models coming into school are all part of the strategy.

Governors have come from local industry and commerce, and from all ethnic groups. Two governors are ex-pupils and the present chairman is Hartley Hanley, an experienced youth worker who was working in Moss Side in the early l980s when the first riots broke out. His particular interest is in persuading parents to treat the school as their own: "We want to encourage them to come in as a matter of course, not just when there is a problem."

Ducie High School exudes optimism. But there are still problems - not least the league table rating which shows only 8 per cent of pupils achieved five GCSEs with grades A to C last year (down from 10 per cent the previous year). Dawn Peters is concerned, but says the school is introducing General National Vocational Qualifications, to make sure they cater for all abilities. And while enormously grateful for the capital spending, she looks ruefully at those old desks in the gleaming new art studios and at the inadequate staffing budget.

"Basically the staff is too small," she says. "There is enormous commitment but we have had the pain of redundancies. There seems to be no mechanism for setting up a school which is expanding... We need revenue to make things happen for the children so the school can really make a difference to their lives. "

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